Walkin’ to New Orleans

A march that began with an eviction in Mobile ended with a singing, dancing, cheering welcome in dismal New Orleans. Planning began months before, chiefly by the national Veterans for Peace group and its Mobile chapter. The Veterans and Survivors March for Peace and Justice they called it to emphasize that lives and wealth wasted in war should be devoted to rebuilding the coastal swath laid waste by wind and water.

But before they could deliver this message to the hurricane homeless they became homeless themselves. An historic black church in downtown Mobile was to serve as the assembly point for marchers converging from across the country. Then somebody started torching churches upstate, and some members of the host congregation started remembering the fate of certain churches noted as centers of civil rights activity decades ago.

The march leaders understood. They relocated to a drafty warehouse in a bleak neighborhood beside I-65. An affiliated organization had been using this site for hurricane relief operations, which seemed a fitting refuge.

Besides a gathering place, it became a somber shrine. Rows of boots labeled with the names of slain American soldiers filled one section of the building. Despite the large number, they were merely an image rather than a full count of the thousands killed. And beside them were several concentric circles of shoes representing the literally countless Iraqi dead, each bearing a name and age, including the infant slippers.

New arrivals would pause in silence as they gazed across the expanse of empty footwear. Even mike and camera toting medioids, who’d presumably seen some of the worst scenes the world has to offer, were affected by the volume of violent death the display symbolized. This was shock and awe-but of a very different sort from the childish delight in destruction exhibited by the militarists and their commentator enablers who lavished that phrase on the bombing salvos that launched a war three years ago.

The marchers numbered a couple hundred when they crossed Mobile in ragged step to a battery bullhorn cadence. Some were the stalwarts who would go all the way to New Orleans. Others were locals from Citizens for Peace, among other groups, who would walk only the opening leg. A few were strays who latched onto this passing parade just long enough to make a gesture of support and to urge the marchers onward.

As always since the first anti-war demonstrations in these streets over three years ago, most drivers and pedestrians passing by stare resolutely straight ahead: If I don’t look at this circus, then it isn’t real-it’s happening in some parallel universe that doesn’t intersect with mine.

But among those who do acknowledge the marchers’ existence, there is much less of the frank, ferocious hostility common when the war began. And there are more waves and honks of support.

There are even episodes like the solitary woman in paroxysms on the street side as the march passes. She’s leaping up and down, clapping wildly, and shouting joyously for the anti-war banners, flags, posters, and chants. On and on she goes.

This is not the behavior of a Quaker. Or a Unitarian. She isn’t a pacifist exhibiting her philosophical conclusions. Some other experience has shaped her. Whatever that may be, perhaps a volatile mixture of grief and relief, it makes her passionately thankful for what the marchers are doing, even though she won’t join them.

The procession arrives at a park, where the boots await like an emotional ambush. This time they’ve been laid out single file around the entire perimeter of the park. Speeches reinforce the message of this mission.

Then those aiming for New Orleans shuttle to a campsite westward toward the Mississippi line. The next morning they will cross it and march into the coastal zone that Katrina wrecked far more thoroughly than the Mobile area.

The pattern repeated in the following days: march, shuttle, boots, speeches, camp, press conferences, march.

Imagine the logistics of moving this troupe almost 150 miles. Everybody had to be fed every day. A new camp had to arise every night. Blisters and sprains had to be tended and preparations had to be in place for graver problems.

And all this had to be done in stretches still in ruins. The march organizers’ success in grappling with these challenges was a silent rebuke to FEMA and local authorities, who’ve had vastly more resources to deploy yet have accomplished merely fractions of what’s needed.

Wrecked residential tracts remain strewn with debris and largely vacant. Some FEMAville clusters of trailers have sprouted, just in time to become instant airborne rubble in the first medium hurricane of the looming storm season.

But activities with the glimmer of swift profits need no boost from authority. They attract cash and effective action. Refineries and shipyards feasting on the Pentagon budget are operating again. Although Katrina totally erased the casinos, which sat right at the water’s edge, some are already back in business and promising jackpots.

In such a setting the march’s political logistics explicitly echoed themes that would resonate with the memory of those forsaken and forgotten before. During another war Martin Luther King said that every bomb dropped in Vietnam exploded somewhere in America, because it expends assets needed here. So a slogan of the march asserted: Every Bomb Dropped in Iraq Explodes Along the Gulf Coast. Earlier president Eisenhower had said something similar. That, too, was on a banner in the ranks.

And as the flames of burning Alabama churches receded, Mississippi ones became more receptive. Receptive congregations meshed with the needs of wayfarers and with the churchy urges of some marchers.

They wanted to rescue Jesus. In the civil rights era He had been the god of the segregated, the suppressed, and the poor. But He was taken hostage and spirited away to some theological Guantanamo where tortured interpretations of scripture were extracted to warp his teachings. He became a mask donned by those ravenous for wealth and war whose behavior declares they really believe in some mutant deity spliced from Midas and Mars.

The march was a form of jailbreak to spring the prisoner. It revived a bit of the civil rights aggregation. An integrated group from far and near on a mission made common cause with afflicted locals gathered around black churches. The early years of the 60s movement were no more than this in character or size, and they eventually steered history on a new course.

Arrival in New Orleans also reflected this revival. The final leg of the march passed through sections that truly do look like bombs exploded there. Half a year after the calamity they are still a huge grid of vacant wreckage. And at Louie Armstrong park in Congo square, where the march ended on a pleasant spring

Sunday afternoon, a statue of Satchmo looked across empty lawns. On one side the French Quarter has resumed some touristy life, but the lower grounds on the other side flooded and they are a ghost town.

Yet from somewhere a few hundred folks assembled in a paved plaza to give the march a rapturous reception. This crowd was a mini-60s. The anti-war veterans of war mingled with dreadlocked Rastafarians in front of literature tables bearing peace buttons, Black Panther party mementos, and current publications of a Common Ground Collective. A horde of youngsters with a Woodstockian air danced with abandon to the beat of a song booming from amplifiers on the speakers’ platform. It was the Motown hit that became the anthem of campus protests against the Vietnam war: War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

Maybe the resemblance to that era was so obvious that the speakers felt no need to remark on it. Nor did they dwell on the feat of organization and endurance performed by the march. They were looking ahead.

That includes another visit to W when he’s vacationing at his Texas ranch. Cindy Sheehan did not become by miracle the famous Cindy who appeared at W’s gate last year demanding an audience with him about why her son died in Iraq. She had been nearby at a convention of the same group behind this march, Veterans for Peace. Her vigil at the ranch and all that sprang from it originated at that convention. And her presence at the final stages of the march testified to this connection.

Her celeb status may detain her elsewhere, but others say they are marching across Texas in April. Destination: Crawford and the ranch again.

The likely results are no more apparent now than they were in the civil rights movement. Then some resolute people looked at legalized racial segregation and said this has to stop. Eventually it did. But that took generations.

Some looked at the war in Vietnam and said the war itself is the cause of the chaos and instability that the war’s promoters claim they’re trying to squelch. This pointless, hideous slaughter has to stop. Eventually it did. But that took ten years.

DAVID UNDERHILL was a radio talk show host in Mobile, Alabama. But he didn’t believe that patriotism equals slaughtering innocents on the opposite side of the globe, and he was fired, which leaves him with more free time for other pursuits now. He can be reached at: drunderhill@yahoo.com




DAVID UNDERHILL lives in Mobile, Alabama. He can be reached at drunderhill@yahoo.com